Note: I’ve been holding off posting this. A question has been eating at me in light of our current cultural climate here in the US: Is this really the time for a white person to honor and elevate other white people? Left with that criteria alone, I kept coming up with a resounding “No”! I actually tried to remove the ethnic labels completely, but it watered down my actual experience. This article isn’t just about ethnicity, it is about recognizing my own biases and fears. It is an exercise I have to do well and do often if I am to be an effective advocate for LGBTQ people in faith communities and an effective ally to marginalized people everywhere. Having said that, I ask for your grace and patience as I let you in to this moment of my own growth and healing.
Last spring, Mark Wingfield, associate Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, wrote a blog post about seven things he was learning about the Transgender community. The church was going through an extensive study and discernment process over the idea of embracing LGBTQ people into their model of “one class” of membership. The process opened his eyes to all he didn’t know about what it means to be Transgender.
I had been watching Wilshire from a distance as they began to tackle the issue if inclusion. Eventually I was given the opportunity to meet with a few of the members of the study group to ask and answer questions. They were warm, caring people who where passionate about “getting this right,” not just for LGBTQ christians but for the sake of the whole church. I was impressed and motivated by their process and their commitment.
When Mark’s article was released, two mutual friends arranged a meeting. As I understand it, I was the first of many transwomen and transmen Mark would meet over the next few months. That withstanding, I’ve looked back on that meeting and wondered if perhaps it was more significant for me in my personal and spiritual healing that it was for Mark on his journey toward understanding.
My professional life started with my studies at Moody Bible Institute. I eventually earned a degree in Communications and Christian Ministry from Dallas Baptist University. I spent years in the Christian music industry, working for churches in various capacitates, working with not-for-profits and church partners. All this time I was dealing with both physical and emotional issues that often caused me to feel weaker that the men I worked with. On more than one occasion I was verbally mocked and diminished for what was perceived as softer, more feminine characteristics by the white, male pastors who dominated the landscapes where I served.
Straight, white, Christian men were more of a distant, unreachable abstract than a peer group. With very few exceptions (my own father being one of them), the men I knew were better at keeping me in the margins that they were at encouraging, mentoring and empowering me. While doing all I could to look and act like them, I internally kept thick walls between my reality and what I perceived to be theirs.
The stress of those masks eventually pushed me to the brink of taking my own life. Emerging from months of treatment and therapy with a renewed commitment to authenticity, I began the process of “affirming my identity and transitioning my faith”. I let God out of the god-shaped box I had built in my head. I saw my creator in a new, bigger, brighter, more beautiful light, and before long saw myself in a new light as well. My new perspective helped open the doors to not only understanding my mind and soul, but my body as well. After over 25 years of undiagnosed pain and complications, doctors repaired 7-8 hernias in my abdominal wall, removed a cyst and diagnosed an intersex condition that has by all measures been present since my stay in my mother’s womb.
God, life, family, and church – they all began to find renewed purpose in my daily existence. I was developing a passion for seeing the Church grow into more affirming and inclusive theology and practice. It was in that state that I watched Wilshire begin their process of purposeful discovery. It was in that state that I read about 7 things Mark was learning about Transgender People. It was in that state I came to sit across the table from him, yet another straight, cis, white, male pastor.
But this was different. Of course I was different. But there was something different about my experience with Mark that day. As I contemplated that in the months ahead, Mark was joined by two other straight white male pastors who I realized were helping reshape my vision: George Mason (Wilshire’s Sr. Pastor), and John Featherston (Pastor and founder of Serenity Church in The Colony, TX).
What was different? Taking a page out of Mark’s notes, I’ve identified seven things.
1) They were listening to me.
I was clueless as to how desperately I, and so many others, needed to be heard, believed and respected. Just the act of listening was empowering.
2) They were asking me questions.
I wasn’t just an anecdote they could adopt for a clever illustration some Sunday morning. My experience was allowed to be relevant to their own.
3) They had their own growing to do.
Mark’s willingness to expose his need to learn about Transgender people – and then actually go about leaning in a very public manor – stood in stark contrast to the “all the answers all the time” pastoral models I has become accustomed to.
4) “Normal” is much more of a myth than I ever imagined.
For most of my life, these men who stood over me with crushing spiritual authority attempted to normalize their own lives and ideas. Watching Mark, George and John all make room for healthy realities outside their own was refreshing.
5) They weren’t alone.
There are actually more men like them. In fact they are turning out to be more common than I ever might have believed. It’s astounding how our negative experiences can exaggerate and distort our own realities. I’m not trying to invalidate my own life’s journey, but rather to recognize how that journey has skewed my perception of the larger world.
6) It was easier to accept others having accepted myself.
One of the biggest differences in my interaction with Mark at lunch that day, with John in the months prior to that, and with George in the months to come was that I had less to prove to myself. I wasn’t seeking their approval. I needed the community they offered, I needed the encouragement that comes with that community. But I didn’t need them to validate me in order to feel I was a whole and valuable person of my on accord.
7) I had my own stereotypes to overcome.
I was recently standing in the security line at Newark International. Since I present more feminine, no matter how hard I might try to be “neutral,” and my ID is still in my old name and gender these moments are sometimes tense. There were two TSA agents reviewing documents. One was a young woman of color, the other was a middle aged white male. I found myself counting the people ahead of me hoping the numbers were in my favor so I would not have to go through this with the male stranger. As well founded as my fear may have been in life experience, there was not way I could assume it applied to this man in this moment. (I did end up in his line, he did do a double take when he saw my ID, then handed it back with a polite, “Thank you, ma’am. Have a nice flight.”)
I started attending Wilshire not long after that lunch and joined the church a few months after that. Last weekend the expansive discussion around full inclusion of LGBTQ people came to a crescendo when the congregation approved a resolution that expanded the church’s definition of “one class of membership.” I’m relieved with the outcome, but regardless of what way the vote had gone, Wilshire would have continued to be a home for me. It has become a place where I can explore and expand my preconceptions and new perceptions of life, love and spiritual wholeness.
In the wake of a tumultuous national election, it would be easy to let that mistrust of white men retake a strong-hold in my daily thoughts. Fear is gripping so many minority groups who have been in our president-elect’s crosshairs – or of those who support him. The need for churches to be a genuine sanctuary for the marginalized is as great as ever. This coming Sunday is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day when the LGBTQ community and our allies pauses to remember those we lost this year to suicide and violent attacks. The number is usually in the hundreds. In the week since the election, we have lost many more. I’m grateful that Wilshire has taken these timely steps to become exactly the type of sanctuary so many will need.
I’m also grateful for straight, cis, white men like Mark, George and John who break my own stereotypes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not planning to let my guard down. There are still many hurtful things being said by spiritual leaders from a variety of denominations, ethnicities, genders and orientations. There are still haunting images and voices of men from my past. Standing from where I am now, however, there is great cause for hope.
I have seen God’s hand in each step of my journey; I have no reason to believe he won’t be in the next steps. May God bless the journey ahead for us all.
If you would like to know more about my story, please go to Amazon.com and pick up a copy of my book, “Shattering Masks.”